Beginning in 2015, AutoNation Inc. will become title sponsor of a new college football bowl game that will raise money for breast-cancer research.
The AutoNation Cure Bowl, played at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, will feature teams from the American Athletic and Sun Belt conferences. The first matchup will air Dec. 19, 2015, on CBS.
AutoNation has been working on the sponsorship for a year, but it wouldn't have happened if it were a traditional bowl game, without the charitable tie-in, CEO Mike Jackson said. The net proceeds of the bowl game will benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
"If it was a marketing effort, hmm, that's not for us," Mr. Jackson said. "Now when you combined it with our national cause of fighting cancer and a respected research fund and a college football bowl in one of our major markets, then I said, 'I like that. We should do it.'"
The sponsorship is "expensive," Jackson said, but he wouldn't disclose a dollar amount. AutoNation has committed to the sponsorship for two years and has an additional three-year option through 2019. The game is expected to raise more than $1 million for the foundation during the next few years.
AutoNation's move may be the first title sponsorship of a college bowl game by any automotive retailer. AutoNation will advertise during the game and have marketing activities surrounding it. But football hasn't been a major focus of the company's marketing efforts, Mr. Jackson said. AutoNation has never done a national Super Bowl commercial. It once planned to show a spot in the 2000 Super Bowl as part of a national brand rollout, but Mr. Jackson scrapped the branding effort when he arrived as CEO in late 1999.
At that time, Mr. Jackson questioned the need for a national brand. But the organization was ready by 2013 when the retailer rebranded most of its dealerships coast to coast under the AutoNation name. The bowl sponsorship wouldn't have made sense without that change, Jackson said.
"Without the branding, we're not doing this," he said. "If I still had six different names in Florida for the business, it's hard to coherently do something like this that would make sense for the company."
AutoNation turned up its charitable giving as part of the rebranding initiative in early 2013. That's when executives decided to make cancer awareness and prevention the primary focus of those efforts. AutoNation partnered with Racing for Cancer, a charity founded by IndyCar racer Ryan Hunter-Reay. The partnership has raised $2 million in less than two years, including $1 million alone from AutoNation.
AutoNation originally signed up for a two-year stint to support Racing for Cancer, but Mr. Jackson said today that the partnership will continue as it "has far surpassed all our hopes and expectations."
AutoNation executives chose cancer for its charitable focus because it has affected the lives of so many of its employees. Mr. Jackson himself recalled supporting his wife, Alice, through her breast-cancer treatments. The family of COO Michael Maroone last month announced a multimillion-dollar donation to the Cleveland Clinic for a new Florida cancer center.
"You could knock on almost any home in America, and they could tell you their personal story" about cancer, Mr. Jackson said. "This is about finding the cure. I hope it's a sea of pink that day in the stadium."
--Amy Wilson is a reporter for Automotive News